Saint Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor

Athanasius was born in Alexandria, in northern Egypt, in 293. He was a theologian, Patriarch of Alexandria, a Church Father, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the first Council of Nicaea in 325, Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father; in other words, that Christ was not divine. He is chronologically the first Doctor of the Church as designated by the Catholic Church and counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church.

Athanasius received his philosophical and theological training at Alexandria and was ordained a deacon by Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria in 319. In 325, he served as Alexander’s secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. As a recognised theologian and ascetic, he was the obvious choice to replace Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria on the latter’s death in 328, although the Arians were opposed to his appointment.  

In the first years he visited the people in his diocese and also the desert monks and hermits. Soon after, however, he became much involved in disputes with the Byzantine Empire and Arians and these would occupy much of his life.

In 335, he was deposed by the Arians at a meeting of bishops in Tyre. Later, he was exiled by Emperor Constantine I to Trier in the Rhineland. On the death of the emperor, Athanasius returned to Alexandria only to be banished again by the new emperor, Constantius II. Athanasius then went to Rome, but kept in contact with his people through his annual ‘Festal Letters’. Efforts by Pope Julius I for Athanasius’ reinstatement proved fruitless, but in 346 he was able to return to Alexandria. His return was welcomed by the majority of the people of Egypt, who saw him as a national hero.

This was the start of a “golden decade” of peace and prosperity, during which time Athanasius assembled several documents relating to his exiles and returns from exile in the Apology Against the Arians. However, in 350, Athanasius was once again banished and took refuge in desert monasteries. During this time he wrote a number of important works attacking the Arians.

In 361, he was able to return again to Alexandria and made appeals for church unity, but in 362 there began another series of expulsions for him. Altogether he spent 17 of the 46 years of his episcopate in exile.

After long years of struggle he died peacefully 2 May, 373. He left behind a large corpus of writings and was hailed as “the pillar of the Church” by Gregory of Nazianzus. He is now numbered as one of the Doctors of the Church.  

Athanasius was originally buried in Alexandria, but his body was later transferred to Italy. During Patriarch Shenouda III’s visit to Rome in 1973, Pope Paul VI gave him the relics of St Athanasius. They are now preserved in the new St Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Deir El-Anba Rowais, Abbassiya, Cairo, Egypt.

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